The margin for error in space exploration is tiny. Even an unassuming rock or a bit of sloped terrain can topple a robotic explorer, and what if there’s no one within millions of miles to flip it right-side-up again? NASA is developing a new precision landing system called Safe and Precise Landing – Integrated Capabilities Evolution (SPLICE), and it’s getting ready to test several of its core technologies with the help of a Blue Origin New Shepard rocket.
The problem with landing spacecraft on distant celestial objects is that, well, they’re distant. You can’t control descent and landing in real-time if the target is several light minutes away — the lander would be toast before your commands ever got there. That’s why SPLICE is designed to be fully autonomous with terrain relative navigation, Doppler lidar, hazard detection lidar, and a powerful landing computer.
NASA often has to choose landing zones based on safety concerns. The team operating a lander might prefer to land near that cool crater or rocky outcropping, but that could spell doom for the mission. SPLICE could enable spacecraft to land in much more challenging and interesting locations. NASA hopes to build SPLICE into future robotic and crewed missions, but first, it has to test the technology. The upcoming New Shepard launch will help with that, but only three of the four SPLICE features will be included at first; the hazard detection lidar will be tested at a later date.
NASA’s work doesn’t end there. They will also need to choose landing zones based on the safety they can offer. If a lander is being controlled by a team, they would choose to land near a crater, or somewhere rocky, but that can badly affect the mission. SPLICE has the ability to make the spacecraft land where we couldn’t land before. Depending on SPLICE’s success, NASA will be integrating it to both robotic and crewed missions. The New Shepard launch will be determining it, but only three features of SPLICE will be tested out. The hazard detection lidar will be tested in the future.